Social-Emotional Learning Boosts STEM Education. Here’s How.

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Back in 2011, the US Chamber of Commerce released a report called The Case for Being Bold. This report famously led to a decade-long effort to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in K-12 education and a huge investment of resources from governments and corporations:

  • More than $1 billion dollars spent over the next decade funding STEM education and awareness.
  • Business-led campaigns to lead and amplify the effort to support STEM education.
  • Vital Signs metrics track and evaluate students’ academic performance in STEM subjects.
  • The STEM is Cool! campaign highlighted innovative and exciting work in STEM jobs
  • “STEM salons” popped up across the country, selling STEM-centric courses, after school programs and even birthday parties for kids K-12 ages.

However, despite this massive investment of resources, the effort to promote STEM education has fallen short in some key areas.

While the candidate pool for technical jobs increased, overall diversity of people working STEM jobs still lags behind other fields. Moreover, overall scores in math, science and technology in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (known as “the nation’s report card”) haven’t improved over the last 10 years.

Essentially, people and organizations directly involved in STEM activities benefited from this billion-dollar investment, but everyone else saw little profit.

SEL: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Social-emotional learning, or SEL for short, is the process of teaching people skills to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve goals, develop empathy, build healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions.

SEL also teaches important life skills such as how to analyze and solve problems, set achievable goals, and embracing challenges as part of growing and learning.

Practically speaking, incorporating SEL into a curriculum has been shown to help improve students’ overall academic performance. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL):

  • 83% of students made academic gains when participating in an academic program with an SEL component.
  • Students improved by an average of 11% on standardized tests after participating in an SEL program.
  • Students increased their GPA by an average of 11% when participating in an SEL program.
  • SEL programs help improve student behaviors and attitudes while preventing substance abuse.

SEL Boosts Skills Important to STEM Success

ntegrating social-emotional learning with STEM education enhances the academic program by teaching five key competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and decision-making skills.

Self awareness

Self awareness is the ability of a person to identify their emotions and the impact of those feelings on their behavior.

Self management

Self management is the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors in different situations. This skill is critical to setting and achieving goals, something that is a real challenge for students as well as adults.

The fact is, in STEM education students will inevitably face numerous challenges and failures. Science is, after all, an iterative process. So strong self management is required to deal with and overcome the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that sometimes come with STEM education.

SEL teaches how to learn from past failures and incorporate those insights into future efforts.

Combining SEL with STEM education allows students to persevere and “fail forward” until they reach their ultimate goal.

Social awareness

Social awareness is understanding social norms and empathizing with people from different backgrounds. Strong social awareness results in students who are more creative and able to incorporate alternate viewpoints to solve problems and overcome challenges.

Social awareness not only makes STEM education more effective through improved teamwork, the ability to empathise and see things from another’s point of view is the most important skill in innovation, invention and design.

Take, for example, the market-leading personal finance tool Quicken, created by Intuit, Inc.

Quicken was created by Intuit founder Scott Cook in the early 1980s after his wife complained about struggling to balance their checkbook and keep their bills organized. Cook realized a product centered around simplifying personal finance would help not only his own family, but others as well.

Quicken’s success, driven by Scott Cook’s ability to empathize with challenges faced by other people, helped establish Intuit as one of the most successful companies in the world.

A second example is a product called The Embrace Care.

embrace backpack
Image from Embrace Innovations

The Care was created by a team of Stanford postgraduate students challenged to invent a new incubator for use in developing countries. However, after meeting with mothers living in remote areas without easy access to hospitals, the team realized that a traditional incubator wouldn’t be practical for these mothers and babies.

The team’s ability to take on the perspective of people with a far, far different background than theirs allowed them to reframe the challenge from “invent an incubator” to “help mothers keep babies warm in far-flung locations without access to hospitals or electricity.”

Without that shift in perspective, the team may have simply created a traditional incubator that cost less, had a rechargeable battery or was more portable. It was their empathy that resulted in the inspiration to design a product that has helped to save thousands of lives.

Relationship skills

SEL teaches critical relationships skills that allow students to build and maintain healthy relationships with a diverse range of people.

STEM activities, projects and challenges usually take place in groups or in a team environment. And nearly all jobs in the STEM field rely heavily on collaboration and teamwork. Strong relationship skills and the ability to listen to multiple different perspectives are an absolute must for any success in a STEM education program.

Decision-making skills

Responsible decision-making relies on the ability to understand and anticipate the consequences of actions and make choices based on social norms as well as the well-being of others.

Social-emotional learning teaches responsible decision-making skills as well as focusing on promoting curiosity, open-mindedness and critical thinking skills.

Success in a STEM setting, either academic or in a related job, relies heavily on a person’s ability to analyze data to make a judgement, identify solutions to a problem, and anticipate the impact of an action. Even “small” decision-making skills, like time management and focus, are key to performing well in STEM subjects and challenges.

Next Steps: Time to Invest in SEL

The benefits of pairing STEM education with social-emotional learning is clear and the steps needed to helping today’s students reach their full potential is evident. The time is now to invest in SEL researchers, publishers, services and program providers just as we did for STEM education in 2011.

Learn how you can help bring social-emotional learning to your community today.

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